For my dad, Gilbert Wayne Griffith

(original 2012 post updated)

Some women may say with dismay that they are their father’s daughter—bemoaning that they inherited their father’s mean streak or distant coldness or business acuity and that he had no depth, no grace, no heart.

Gilbert 1983, one of my favorite pics

Gilbert 1983, one of my favorite pics

That was not the case with my father.

When I was eighteen, I left home to get away from my dad. Was it to escape the tyranny of, “While you’re under my roof, you’ll do as I say?” Although that was one of his favorite sayings to us kids, no, that wasn’t why I went four hours away to college. I knew I had to flee how much love I had for him as soon as I could or I would never leave him. 

I wanted to have great adventures in life. Had I stayed to attend college near home, I‘d have become more dependent on Dad—his friendship, his guidance, his easy companionship. I would have never lived in Ohio, Colorado, California, or Montana. Based on living in those places, I traveled to the Caribbean, to Mexico, to Europe. Odds are that I’d have missed it all and would not have great friends scattered across the globe.

I had to leave my dad for 20 odd years in order to find my way back to him.

I returned to my native state of Pennsylvania in 1999, moving to Pittsburgh, about seventy miles from where I grew up. When I came here, it was for the short term. If Ohio was my least favorite state to live in, Pennsylvania ran the closest second. What the humidity did to my long wavy hair alone was enough to keep me away. Scary. I had no intentions of being here long enough to change the plates on my rig (Montanan for SUV) or to get a new driver’s license.

Here I am, creeping up on another summer in the land of crickets and lightening bugs and midget hills people in these parts refer to as mountains. I’ve found myself loving this place as I did in my childhood. It has grown back into my heart—rounding out parts of my life where pieces were missing. 

When I visited my father (mom is discussed in other blogs, the little minx) over the ten years I got to be with him again, I was so overwhelmed time and again with unwavering love that it was difficult to fathom how I left home in the first place. Dad died on April 30, 2009 from the dreaded ALS/Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Dad, 2008

Dad, 2008 – fighting ALS

Being here for my parents at the ends of their lives was what I needed to do. For them and for myself.

Thank God for leading me home when he did. 

When I was a teenager, my father and I used to argue at the supper table. Not that my siblings were saints (okay, Jackie was perfect, Joey the Golden Child and Joanne so much younger that there was no competition), but I was the great debater. Even in college, the speech professor acknowledged, “You love to dispute any point, don’t you?” Yes, yes, I do. With Dad, I’d assert one line on a topic and he’d take up the other. It was a game but sometimes it would turn into a truly heated discussion (I could be obstinate. Surprised?) and I’d stomp off to my bedroom in a huff. I’d sit in the closet with the door shut and the light off. Dad would yell from the dining room for me to come back or, he’d jokingly shout, he was coming in to beat me. I’d sit in the dark laughing, the amusement in his voice apparent. As easy as a would-be quarrel started, it ended. 

There was no such thing as going to bed angry in our home. I don’t think I ever went to sleep in my parents’ house without a kiss and a hug goodnight from each of them.

Once when Jackie was visiting from Montana and we were both staying over at the folks, we got in the twin beds and proceeded to call out, “Daddy! Come tuck us in!” Yes, we were in our forties, what about it? He came in laughing, pulled the sheets up to our chins and kissed us each on the forehead.

In these later years, we could still rev up a good argument when we felt like it, but most of our adult time together was full of far more conversations than conflict—even humorous ones. 

The top photo of this blog? That’s my 71-year-old dad taking photos of the kiddie pool I setup in the yard on a particularly hot July day so PKS (punk kid sister) and I could share margaritas while reclining in it. Lest you think this humor is all mine, the winter before he died, dad had my brother setup a deer feeder in the backyard. Even 76 years into watching the deer wander this land that his grandfather (plus one?) had settled, he enjoyed them. When he realized the fun neighbors next door had put a feeder in their front yard, Dad turned to his computer, typed and printed a sign. He instructed Jackie and Joey to sneak down and tape it to their corn crib, “Better feed 75 yards north.”

 

Do I not care about the car I drive because even though Dad liked cars, he never bothered with a new one? He always maintained ours and did mechanical work for others to earn a little extra cash here or there along the way. But new? It was never an issue for him, so it became irrelevant to me. I got my first new car when I was forty-nine. I’m still driving it.

By that logic, did I fail so many times at love in my life because I learned the wrong lesson of love from my dad? Did I not understand the concrete, unfailing fact of my father’s love and looked instead to how much he worked while I was young and felt that love must mean absence? I chose men who left me alone for all the wrong reasons.

If that is true, then is it not a blessing that several years ago a lightning bolt of reality struck me when Dad said, “I love you, honey,” with such simple intensity that suddenly my world came alive in new and wonderful ways. I finally understood the unconditional love that I had been missing all these years—both in giving and in receiving. 

Great love comes from the heart.

It doesn’t have to be tied to a quantity of words spilling over you in a constant flow, it doesn’t have to be proven by a continuous presence (I’m a writer—alone is good), love simply has to be given to you from the boundless depths of your heart. When that heart is rich with love of life, tied to joy in the person, saying, I love you to someone you care about becomes the easiest words you can speak. 

That was my dad. That remains his greatest gift to me. In the conversation that one specific night, I understood with clarity the simplicity of his words, and from that moment my life grew in abundance, full of a love that I had never truly grasped before. My heart learned to go beyond full, to overflowing, to reach out to others from a new place, and the strength to do so comes directly from the love of my dad.

Because of the life lessons of Dad, I have a man in my life whose love for me comes from the right place. Alex puts up with me, makes me laugh, and knows when to stay: Stop! With whatever crazy thing I’m on about now. He understands me like Dad did.

I always said that I am my father’s daughter because we were equally stubborn and principle-minded and quick to anger, and quick to recover.

But now I say to the world, I am my father’s daughter because he is the man who taught me how to love.

1992 Me & Dad

1992 Me & Dad

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